BLUFFTON, Ga. — A Georgia rancher's battle against bald eagle attacks on his pasture-raised chickens continues, but he's won a skirmish against the federal government.
Bluffton rancher Will Harris, who’s led a crusade for a more ethical treatment of livestock from his fifth-generation farm in southwest Georgia, said he now expects to receive compensation for some of the 160,000 chickens he’s lost in recent years to America’s flying, and hungry, symbol of freedom.
The 63-year-old rancher said he's lost more than $2 million in poultry to the eagles, who now live year-round on his 3,200-acre property, White Oak Pastures, the largest USDA certified-organic property in Georgia.
Reached by phone, Harris said he will likely receive the maximum compensation allowed, $125,000, for each year he proves he suffered losses, and may also recover an estimated $100,000 in legal fees.
Harris said the compensation won't "make or break" his $20-plus million-a-year in revenue operation, but the ruling may prove critical for smaller farms.
“The ruling is a win not just for us – but for all small farms everywhere. At White Oak Pastures, we are committed to animal welfare, regenerative farming and empowering and supporting our local economy,” said Harris. “To survive at a time when conventional producers dominate the market, independent ranchers rely on equitable treatment by laws often written for big agricultural operations.”
Harris started letting his chickens roam freely in 2010 and by 2012 had a flock of 100,000 birds, mostly chickens but also smaller numbers of turkeys, guinea hens and ducks. It didn’t take long for the eagle-eyed eagles to notice. Soon, the federally-protected raptors were destroying up to 30 percent of his flock.
After numerous, unsuccessful efforts to divert the birds of prey from preying on poultry -- noise machines, tarps and other measures were tried -- White Oak Pastures applied for Livestock Indemnity Program benefits from the
Farm Service Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Years of disputes" followed, said Harris, and, in 2017, the FSA denied White Oak Pasture's claims, saying the losses were not proven.
White Oak Pastures appealed the decision. Following an extended period of appeals from both FSA and White Oak Pastures, a ruling issued in August said the FSA acted improperly when it denied White Oak Pasture's request for compensation.
Harris said his resolve to “jump through hoop and hoop” and win the case was hardened when he went to court and saw the judge, courtroom workers, USDA officials with their assistants and his employees all in one room.
“I looked around and realized I was paying the salary of everyone there,” said Harris. “After we were denied it became very personal. I felt very disrespected to be denied a rightful claim.”
Harris said he wanted to teach his two daughters and young farm hands something about “gumption.”
“I was not going to let them see me set a precedent of not fighting for what is right and what is absolutely owed to us,” he said.
White Oak Pastures said 20 or so eagles live at the ranch year around, but about 80 live there in the winter. At one point, eagles were killing 500 birds a day. The ranch has fewer chickens now, about 30,000, because it’s proven difficult to compete against “industrialized” producers who’ve made poultry “incredibly cheap,” Harris said.
Harris has tried many tactics to scare off the eagles, including “those air-filled squiggly men you see at car dealerships” but that didn’t work. He uses about 15 dogs to scare off non-flying varmints such as coyotes, but they are not effective against swift eagle strikes.
“You can’t help but admire them, they are beautiful,” Harris said of America’s national symbol. “But they are the most combative creature I’ve ever seen.”
They are also wasteful. Harris said they sometimes seem to kill chickens for sport, not hunger. "It's a bit like watching a cat play with a mouse," he said.
White Oak Pastures is the largest private employer in Clay County with 155 employees, said Harris, who created a video detailing his effort to rebuild his community. Its products are available at Atlanta-area restaurants and grocery stores including Whole Foods, Publix and Kroger.
Cox Media Group